“I am in a state of shock” ~ Flannery O’Connor

This reminds me of an intense discussion about a poem I had written that contained an apple. Comments included things such as seeing the apple as male testicles, sex, death, etc. It was an apple.

Reblogged from Letters of Note:

In 1961, a professor of English wrote to author Flannery O’Connor and asked her, on behalf of his students, to explain “A Good Man is Hard to Find” — a short story of hers that his class had recently been studying, and for which they were struggling to find an acceptable interpretation. He wrote, in part:

“We have debated at length several possible interpretations, none of which fully satisfies us. In general we believe that the appearance of the Misfit is not ‘real’ in the same sense that the incidents of the first half of the story are real. Bailey, we believe, imagines the appearance of the Misfit, whose activities have been called to his attention on the night before the trip and again during the stopover at the roadside restaurant. Bailey, we further believe, identifies himself with the Misfit and so plays two roles in the imaginary last half of the story. But we cannot, after great effort, determine the point at which reality fades into illusion or reverie. Does the accident literally occur, or is it part of Bailey’s dream? Please believe me when I say we are not seeking an easy way out of our difficulty. We admire your story and have examined it with great care, but we are not convinced that we are missing something important which you intended us to grasp. We will all be very grateful if you comment on the interpretation which I have outlined above and if you will give us further comments about your intention in writing ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.'”

O’Connor was unimpressed, and responded as follows.

(Source: The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, via Patrick Robbins; Image: Flannery O’Connor, via.)

28 March 61

The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be. If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology. I am not interested in abnormal psychology.

There is a change of tension from the first part of the story to the second where the Misfit enters, but this is no lessening of reality. This story is, of course, not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays the everyday doings of people in Georgia. It is stylized and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious.

Bailey’s only importance is as the Grandmother’s boy and the driver of the car. It is the Grandmother who first recognized the Misfit and who is most concerned with him throughout. The story is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action which set the world off balance for him.

The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.

Flannery O’Connor

Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love by Christina Thompson

I have been unable to write for several days for various reasons, hence the reblogs from other places. This particular one, though, I would have reblogged regardless of the circumstances. It’s a beautiful essay about love and loss.

Reblogged from The Paris Review:

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Three years before my mother’s final illness she had a major stroke. It was not a typical stroke—more cascade than cataclysm—but when it was over it had laid her low as effectively as a bolt of lightning.

At first, we didn’t know if she would live or die. She couldn’t move any part of her body, couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow. This last was particularly distressing—swallowing is such a primitive function, but the stroke, it seemed, had struck a primitive part of her brain.

During those first few nights I sat by my mother’s bed in the dim double ward, the curtains drawn between us and the other occupant, who coughed feebly and rustled like an animal in the walls of a house. My mother breathed quietly, the lights on her monitors blinked and glowed. Occasionally an alarm would go off somewhere down the hall with the high, persistent beeping that hospital staff, remarkably, never seem to notice.

I sat there for I don’t know how many hours, drifting in and out of exhaustion and anxiety, and at some point a fragment of poetry came into my mind. “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm . . . ”

Over and over it played in an endless loop, while I racked my brains to identify it. It was definitely something I knew, but I couldn’t even think what century it belonged to. For some reason it became incredibly important to me to figure out what it was.

My first not terribly clever notion was that it might be part of a Shakespearean sonnet, it was certainly forlorn enough. But as anyone who knows anything about English poetry will instantly recognize, the meter was wrong.

My fragment was written in trochaic tetrameter—DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM—and the sonnets, like all of Shakespeare, are in iambic pentameter—da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Clearly, it had nothing to do with Shakespeare.

I ran through some other possibilities. Was it, maybe, Browning? Was it Donne? But eventually, I was forced to acknowledge that I wasn’t going to get the answer just by thinking about it. I was also annoyed that I couldn’t remember the rest of the poem. I was sure I’d known the whole thing once, and this made me think of stories about people in solitary confinement who discover that they can miraculously summon whole novels word for word.

As it turned out, I wasn’t in the critical care ward long enough to find out if this would happen to me because, against all odds, my ninety-year-old mother began to improve. First she started to move her limbs, then to utter a few indecipherable words, and even, after a week or so, to take a spoonful of food. My nighttime vigils gave way to daily trips with flowers and ramekins of chocolate mousse and Agatha Christie novels. My mother was moved to a rehab unit and we moved on to the next chapter of our lives.

It was only months later that I remembered the lines of poetry and went to look them up. They belonged, of course, to a well-known poem by W. H. Auden—how could I not have gotten that?—a modern work with a romantic slant from 1937.

What I had remembered were the first two lines. The next few, which had seemed in the gloom of the hospital to be floating just beyond my reach, ran as follows: “Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children, and the grave / proves the child ephemeral.”

How curiously the mind works. I had completely forgotten these references to illness and death and the sharp juxtaposition of childhood with the grave in what is, essentially, a poem about the erotic love of one man for another. Yet surely these were the very elements that had brought the poem into my mind by some subterranean channel.

The speaker in Auden’s poem, who is also awake in the night, looks on his sleeping lover with tenderness and something like pity. It is partly pity for himself, partly for the boy on the bed, but also pity for humanity as a whole, for the plight of mortal men and women who live and love and cherish beauty only to fade and die. At one level it is a poem about the anticipation of loss.

Which is, of course, why I had conjured it up. At the same time, it struck me funny that Auden’s lullaby for his lover—some handsome, sleek-haired youth in tangled sheets—should have seemed so perfectly applicable to me and my elderly mother. But love is love; that’s the point. You don’t care about losing someone unless you love them, and the more deeply you love them the more painful the prospect of losing them is.

My mother eventually recovered, not perfectly, but well enough to enjoy her last years, and I began to see her stroke as a sort of dress rehearsal. Having peered into the abyss, I was able step back, but I knew that it was there.

The stroke had altered her. She was smaller, thinner, more fragile, less vivid, though the sweetness of her personality still shone through, perhaps even brighter now that her vivacity was diminished.

I had been living with her for years already—my husband and I on one side of the house with our children; my mother and, until his death, my father on the other side—but after her stroke she was no longer really independent and it fell to me to look after her more and more.

Once a week I took her to the hairdresser, often stopping afterwards for a frappe. I picked out DVDs for her at the library and baked crème caramel, which she found easy to eat. I washed her cashmere sweaters by hand and helped her with her elastic stockings and filled her hot water bottle at night.

She still complained that my boys needed haircuts, but many of the things that had once seemed important had gone by the by. We had both become more agreeable, and there was really nothing to argue about anymore. She gave me advice when I asked for it; I tried to pay attention to her needs. After a year or two I realized that I had grown so used to being with her that I knew what she wanted before she even opened her mouth to speak.

And then, one day, it dawned on me that she was getting weaker. At first it was nothing I could pinpoint, she just didn’t seem entirely well. Then something happened that put her in the hospital and the next thing I knew she had been diagnosed. Pancreatic cancer: in her case painless but incredibly swift.

This time there was no chance of a reprieve, no hoping she would get better. There were no cures, no treatments, no other outcomes, just the imminent prospect of her death.

The night before she died I sat up with her, in a chair pulled close to the side of her bed. There was a nightlight burning in the corner of the room and I sat with a duvet wrapped around me, even though the night was warm. Her breathing was becoming labored and I could feel that she was in distress. I stroked her hand and told her that I wouldn’t leave her, that she could sleep and when she woke I would still be there.

Hour after hour passed. At some point I dozed off and woke, terrified. But she was sleeping, her fine white hair spread across the pillow, the muscles of her face relaxed. The Auden poem came back to me—how could it not? But this time it was not the first lines but the last: “Beauty, midnight, vision dies . . . / Find the mortal world enough . . . / Nights of insult let you pass / Watched by every human love.”

Again it came to me in that darkened room—not pity for my mother exactly, nor even necessarily for myself, but a deep, intractable sadness that our lives were changing and, at the same time, a wave of gratitude that I had been lucky enough to have had a mother I loved so very much.

Christina Thompson is the author of Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All and the editor of the Harvard Review.

Wanted: Literary Mentor by Michael McGrath

I like the whole concept of a literary mentor, but I suppose I’m too old to ask for one, not that I have ever had occasion to come across a possible candidate. Oh well . . .

Reblogged from The Paris Review:

I’m in the market for a mentor. My qualifications? I’m educated. Some (prospective employers, Stafford Loan sharks, OKCupid algorithms) would say too educated. More importantly, I have wide shoulders and solid vision, am able to open most jars and decipher prescription fine print. I’m handy with sticky file cabinets and missing memory sticks. I can sort e-mails and convert floppy disks, screen calls from editors and exes, purchase trinkets and gadgets for departing lovers or estranged children.

Past potential mentors (professors, friends of friends, intermittent pen pals) have proved unwilling or unworthy for a variety of reasons. Some were in no position to accept or provide help, requiring their own full-blown interventions. Others had full plates—book tours, a slew of international residencies—or had already been claimed by another dedicated sycophant. One candidate of desirable vintage (tottering, affable, largely abandoned) preferred nubile female mentees. Another candidate projected an intriguing otherworldly aura. A certified genius, she was very kind but too far removed from the cynical workings of the world to offer much practical assistance. (In one dreamlike afternoon workshop, just prior to dropping another brilliant, indecipherable insight: “First, allow me to put on my human-being suit.”)

But enough about me, let’s talk about you. Ideally you are a cultural touchstone who would like to see your career reincarnated through a willing and qualified vessel, a literary lion(ess) seeking to direct and amplify the ripples of your influence, a charming gadabout with a tennis court and celebrity godchildren. You are able to offer constructive praise of my stalled novel (feel free to characterize it as “a more soulful rendition” of your own debut) and you are happy to engineer introductions to heiresses with serrated shoulder blades, impressionable patrons, pocket-squares-in-chief, and other figures commonly found at the fizzy intersection of art and commerce.

In these blooming, feral months of early summer there is doubtless much to do at your summer cottage. Allow me to spray the hornets’ nest in your outdoor shower, prune your butterfly bush, wax your musty MG, collect intelligence on the local unmarrieds, crack your lobsters, brew your tea, administer your nightcaps, track down exotic pipe tobaccos, sand your dock, paint your dinghy, rearrange pots and buckets as the ceiling springs the usual leaks. Deputize me to hand wash your cardigans in the sink and retrieve daily gossip, newspapers, and jugs of gin from the general store.

I’m even willing to enter into a vaguely forebidding psychosexual relationship, waking to find pieces of sea glass rearranged on my nightstand in some significant way or a constellation of fireflies scooped from the meadow and released into my rooms above the garage. Accidentally leave your diary open to a particularly suggestive passage, point out photographs of dead lovers who shared my likeness and “energy,” paint watercolors in the nude.

Perhaps in July I’ll chauffeur you through green New England hills to various conferences and retreats, manage ferry schedules and tire pressure, proofread craft talks and other remarks, prepare picnic lunches, replace reading glasses left in a truck-stop washroom, provide cold comfort and fake contact information for clingy attendees. In a humid lull between award ceremonies, I’ll use satellites to locate your cherished childhood swimming hole, shepherd you up the steep trail, apply sunscreen to your ravaged skin, and either turn my head modestly or note your fragile grace (your preference) as you strip before plunging into the cold water.

In August, as the nights cool and rents rise, I’ll ghostwrite blurbs and upload your syllabus, invite culturally significant neighbors over for cocktails and croquet while rebuffing the local book clubs. One night, drowsy from the day’s sun, picking at a cold chicken, we discuss the impending fall with unusual candor. Your editor threatens legal action over an undelivered manuscript; your biographer is bored; your department head hints at forced retirement. The last of the movie money must go to a new roof. There are no calls from Stockholm forthcoming. We jokingly contemplate murder-suicide while toasting the freedom of diminished circumstances.

The big maple in the yard turns a mournful red. You spend Labor Day with family. Shunned, I write a story about a dying, vice-riddled artist haunted by regret. You retaliate by writing a story about a talentless, deceitful striver who worms his way into the confidences of a trusting, benevolent sage.

Our falling out is quick and bloodless. You instruct the groundskeeper to pack my belongings while I’m off at the pharmacy. I return to tutoring while you pen a widely mocked editorial on the fecklessness of millennials. My story is rejected at the usual places while yours is acquired by the latest well-funded online outfit.

CV, samples, and references available upon request.

Michael McGrath is a writer living in Connecticut and a former Poe-Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia. Visit him at mikeymcgrath.com.